Musings on Yugaantar

by Seetha Ananthasivan

Andrey Snegirev (flickr)

Musings on Yugaantar

I spend an hour or so every day in my backyard. I am truly grateful that this space is available to me– to just sit and stare or to potter around doing odd jobs in my comfortable shabby clothes; sometimes I harvest vegetables, dig a bit, weed out some parthenium or listen to the calls or screeches of the koel, kingfisher or other birds. There are times when I need to catch and kill those invasive African snails that gobble up all the tender shoots – I am adding this to set the record straight that it is not always nice and sweet work!

Before we look at foundations for an ecological era, we need to re-visit the seed ideas of our modern civilisation and the Industrial age, says Seetha Ananthasivan.

Most of all, there is something new everyday, every moment I spend there. Little things you notice but forget very soon. But I am not overly excited; I just don’t bother to record anything. This is just time and space to free-float, being there, belonging there. No deadlines, nothing to achieve. I must mention though, that my backyard is not over-maintained. There are enough corners with wild growth that I feel especially happy about.

Sometimes these small wilderness areas are where I feel most alive and most at home. The world and its cares seem very different when you feel embedded in a bit of wilderness; it seems then that the worst deprivation we have inflicted on our children is robbing them of wild nature.

One could say that being with Nature in this way is nothing much – not by the world’s standards – no spectacular sights, no scientific or intellectual findings, nor anything special. Yet if I were to be asked what would be the one thing in my home space that I would like to hold on to, it would be this time in my backyard.

The first thing on my wish list for Yugaantar therefore will be that we beckon to everyone to get in touch with Nature, within and around us; an perhaps learn from Nature what we are not able to teach each other. That said, what else do we wish for through the Yugaantar process?

Seed Ideas of a Civilisation

The vision of Yugaantar is to offer engaging and meaningful resources to school and college students about ecological living. We decided therefore to hold workshops (April 2016) on “Foundations of an Ecological Age”, to begin by looking at seed ideas that shape a civilization. It may sound quite bombastic and ambitious, but how will we support our children to ground themselves sensibly if together we don’t see the larger picture, the truer picture?

Before we look at foundations for an ecological era, we need to re-visit the seed ideas of our modern civilisation and the Industrial age. We usually  keep working with ‘end-of-branch’ issues and forget the root level issues that continue to bring in more problems to solve. So among other things, the Yugaantar vision is to draw attention to these and to look at the need of seed ideas or foundations for an ecological era.

The view of economists that human beings are primarily selfish and look for materialistic growth for themselves is perhaps the most damaging seed idea of our industrial age. This has spawned an economic system and technologies including media that succeed very well in keeping this image alive, that we are basically consumers.

Corporate power and globalization have been seeded by the elites to be protected from public accountability in many ways; Science has become reductionist, with Descartes and Bacon seeding the conquest and desacralisation of nature and making us increasingly anthropocentric. All this has contributed to popular aspirations to  being a big consumer, or one who creates the most consumers. The story of the hero as an achiever today is disconnected from Nature as well as the long-term wellbeing of humans and other beings of the earth.

Education as we know it today, focuses on supplying a workforce to our factories and offices and is little concerned with helping children see the reality and make choices from a true understanding of the world. When formal schools began in the eighteenth century, some of the seed ideas they were built on included inculcating a time-consciousness that was needed to run machines, a fear of authority and ability to do boring work. It also made nature, farming and crafts go to the fringes, appear to be part of the ‘less educated’ way of living.

Foundations for Ecological Living

So what are the seed ideas we need for an ecological age? What are the root level issues we need to think about if we are to make our offerings real and grounded? To start with we focussed on philosophies for ecological living, livelihoods and economics for wellbeing and holistic thinking and enquiry in education as themes to work on.

Philosophy has been relegated to academia or as an indulgence for the elderly. How do we bring back the idea of philosophies for practical living? Satish Kumar talked about Nature and humans being one, and Aseem Shrivastava about ‘anthropo-responsiveness’. In what ways do we share our beliefs and perspectives with the hope that it will strike a chord in the young?

Many alternative schools have sprung up in different corners of the world. Many others are into unschooling and deschooling. But how do we touch the majority in main stream schools? How do we attempt to shape policy? What about Public Interest Litigation to question outdated curricula? Building model schools based on holistic enquiry? Make documentaries and write articles and books for the young? We need them all and more.

Livelihoods that connect us to Nature, give us basic needs of food, water, clothes and housing have been trampled upon systematically in the name of development. What has actually happened is also that a huge number of livelihoods have often been destroyed to create far fewer jobs in factories.

A case in point is the story shared by Sridhar, from Thanal, Kerala, about the Grasim Industries factory arm twisting local governments to get bamboo at the rate of Re.1/- per truck load. They destroyed livelihoods of over 3,00,000 bamboo workers, fisherfolk and others to create about 3000 jobs – and the factory ended up polluting the Chaliyar river, causing cancer in the region and finally had to be closed down after prolonged protests.

Another little known story that should be part of geography books around the country is the work of Dhrubajyoti Ghosh. He was responsible for the waste-to-food model of Kolkatta’s fisheries that has become internationally acknowledged. He stresses that in an age of unsustainable living, traditional knowledge systems can provide solutions to local and sustainable food, dealing with urban messes and more.

How do we share such stories and insights that need to inform young minds? Perhaps, as suggested by Ashish Kothari, we bring out educational material on “livelihoods and deadlihoods” – especially for those on the threshold of new careers or for those jaded by a couple of decades spent in front of the computer.

Holistic Enquiry

My backyard musings reinforce my belief that the best foundation for children especially is to spend some time and space with Nature. A connection with plants, trees and other forms of life that gladdens the heart and cleans up the glasses we use to see the world.

Life today is so planned out, sanitized and immersed in man made goodies, that seeing ourselves as part of Nature is not ‘natural’ or part of our daily lives. Many species that have gone extinct must have had some vulnerability – the human weak point seems to be our fantastic mind. We are so capable of living with illusions – over our whole lifetime even, and also over generations.

When we experience a sense of wholeness and oneness, our view of the common aspirations of humans today can be shifted to include more contentment, wisdom and what Wendell Berry calls, quite simply, ‘Good Work’. Work that is connected to our part of the Earth, modestly scaled, honouring the source of materials and local traditions.

In education, perhaps the most important aspect of a holistic enquiry that we can include is a respect for such Good Work; and understand its opposite – Bad Work – which has dominated the world today and been responsible for the unprecedented crises humanity faces today.

Talking about the meaning of Yugaantar, Satish Kumar said,  “It also refers to “a Theerth” which is the shallow part of a flowing river that allows one to cross over to the other bank. Thus Yugaantar also means an attempt to share with and support people to cross over from the bank of separateness, human superiority and consumerism to the bank of togetherness with nature, renewal and wholeness.”

We do need many such ‘theerthas’ to move towards an ecological age.